HERBS FOR HEALTH

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Vitamin C-rich rose hips may help lower histamine levels.
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During the Middle Ages, rue leaves were thought to drive away insects, scorpions and serpents.
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Vitamin C-rich rose hips may help lower histamine levels.

As winter passes and our noses alert us to the
realities of spring growth, those of us with allergic tendencies
may be all too aware of the disadvantages of the growing season.
But don’t give up hope and turn to another drug in your medicine
cabinet–consider some natural allergy fighters. While they may not
provide the quick and easy solution that pharmaceutical
antihistamines do, herbs can help treat the problem without the
jitters and malaise.

Quick Relief

Often some of the most frustrating aspects of allergies are the
sore throat, nose and sinus cavity. Somewhere along the way you may
likely be in search of fast relief rather than a long-term remedy.
Try the soothing qualities of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and
clear your nasal passages with eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus),
peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), pine (Pinus spp.) or thyme (Thymus
vulgaris).

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is another good head-clearing
herb. Its sharp aroma is sure to aid in clearing your sinus
congestion. And while its zingy flavor is not likely to tempt your
taste buds as a tea, grate the fresh root into a boiling soup
broth.

In addition, cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and gingerroot
(Zingiber officinale) may also provide relief for a dry, scratchy
throat. Make a tea of fresh, sliced gingerroot or add honey and a
few drops of cinnamon tincture to a cup of hot water. You may also
want to turn to herbal throat lozenges that contain lemon balm
(Melissa officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), peppermint or
thyme.

The runny nose and buildup of mucus in the nasal and sinus
cavity can be frustrating as well. Mullein (Verbascum spp.) tea (1
teaspoon of dried flower heads per cup of boiling water) serves as
an expectorant to thin and loosen mucus. Elder (Sambucus
canadensis, S. nigra) also has expectorant qualities. You’ll find
that elder is a common ingredient in the herbal cough syrups
available at your local health-food store. Sage and Chinese sage
(S. miltiorrhiza) may help slow the sniffles. Try them in tea or
tincture form.

Seasonal Supplements

Also, try vitamin C and spirulina for your seasonal allergies.
Both block the release of histamine, and research indicates that
people with higher intake and blood levels of vitamin C have lower
levels of histamine. Good sources of this antioxidant and
immune-enhancing vitamin include bright-colored fruits and
vegetables like citrus fruits and peppers, dark-green leafy
vegetables and rose hips.

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that is rich in protein,
vitamins and essential fatty acids. While test-tube studies suggest
its histamine-inhibiting qualities, no specific studies have proved
its effectiveness for people with allergies.

C a p s u l e s

Valerian

The ancients used valerian (Valeriana officinalis) as a
diuretic, to bring on menstrual periods and to treat epilepsy.
Later, it was prescribed as an antispasmodic, calmative and sleep
aid as well as to counter fatigue. These later uses are most common
today, and in Europe a host of preparations containing valerian are
available over the counter. An infusion of the fresh or dried roots
can be drunk before bedtime as a relaxing, if bitter, tea.

Other conditions which valerian has been called upon to treat
include dandruff, coughs, constipation, cholera and flatulence. No
wonder some people have called it all-heal.

Valerian’s mild sedative action, by depression of the central
nervous system and by relaxation of smooth muscle tissue, has been
confirmed by scientific studies. Research is ongoing to determine
which of several constituents of valerian are the active ones–some
of them may act in combination–and the mechanism of their
interaction. Overdoses may cause headache, vomiting, muscular
spasm, dizziness and depression.

Dead Nettle

In England in the Middle Ages, a poultice of dead nettle (Lamium
album, L. maculatum) was used to treat the King’s Evil
(scrofula–tuberculosis of the lymph glands), thought to be cured
otherwise only by a king’s touch. Mixed with wine, the herb was
applied as a plaster to “remove the harness of the spleen,”
allegedly the seat of melancholy. A distillate of the flowers was
said to “make the heart merry” (perhaps needed if the plaster
failed to soften the spleen). Another popular way to administer the
flowers was in a conserve: a pound of flowers to 21/2 pounds of
sugar, which would be sweet enough to mask almost any degree of
bitterness. Dead nettle contains tannin; its use (as a tincture) to
treat diarrhea and wounds probably has some pharmacologic
basis.

Cows won’t eat dead nettle, but you can. Cook the young shoots
as a potherb either alone or mixed with other spring greens; try
them in a cream sauce lightly spiced with curry powder and
cinnamon.

Rue

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is an herb of many connotations. It’s
known also as herb-of-grace (herby-grass) because it was used in
holy water by the Roman Catholic Church to wash away sins. (Hyssop
was the herb of choice in the Middle Ages, but rue was also used,
perhaps because of its longstanding reputation as a
disinfectant.)

Besides a musty odor, rue leaves have a bitter flavor.
Nevertheless, the oil and fresh or dried leaves have been widely
used in perfumes and foods of all sorts. The seeds were used in
early Roman cooking. In the Middle Ages, the leaves were a strewing
herb believed to dispel insects, scorpions and serpents. Holding a
sprig up to one’s nose was thought to ward off plague, and a sprig
hung around the neck was thought to protect against disease as late
as the mid-19th century. Courtrooms in England were strewn with rue
to protect the judges from “jail fever.” Today, both the herb and
the oil are used as a “flavor component” of a wide variety of
processed foods and beverages, though in minute quantities. Rue
still figures in the diet of some cultures. Not only does a little
go a long way because of the bitterness, but more than a little is
toxic, causing gastrointestinal and other symptoms similar to some
of those for which it was given as a remedy.

Medicinal uses are legion and diverse. Warts, cancer, poor
eyesight, worms, scarlet fever and nervousness as a result of
witchcraft are a few of the conditions which rue has been summoned
to treat. It’s likely that rue’s reputation as a medicinal herb
arose because of its strong smell and bitter flavor. The fibrous
roots reminded some people of the blood vessels in the eye, which
may account for its use in treating eyestrain.

Nevertheless, some medicinal uses have a scientific basis:
rutin, a substance known to be effective in combating fragility of
the capillaries, was first isolated from rue, and the herb’s
effectiveness as an antispasmodic has been confirmed. Rue has been
used in many cultures to bring on delayed menstrual periods and
abortions, and several of its constituents have been shown to have
abortive properties. Needless to say, pregnant women should not
take it internally.

Besides causing possible internal toxicity, contact with the
volatile oils in the leaves may cause blistering, itching and
burning of the skin. It makes sense to wear gloves, long-sleeved
shirts and long pants when working around rue plants. On the other
hand, country folk used to apply crushed rue leaves to bee stings
and rheumatic joints.

Despite rue’s long history as a medicinal and culinary herb, it
is grown today primarily as an ornamental, and ornamental it is,
with its blue-green, oval-lobed leaflets and tiny, yellow
four-parted flowers from midsummer to fall. Be careful when
trimming rue hedges if you are sensitive to the oil.

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